Unstaged Grief

Unstaged Grief


Since the beginning of time, grief has been part of the human experience.

Living in a pandemic right now, the topic of grief is coming up more, in a way that is collective and cumulative. It’s collective in that we are facing losses together, a horizontal dynamic in that we dealing with this all at the same time. It has a cumulative aspect in that the losses pile up as time progresses, giving it a vertical dynamic. And being that grief activates grief, each person is experiencing their own grief experience—not just from the pandemic effects, but as it builds on their previous losses.

Grief is one of those things that has misconceptions and misunderstandings around it. One of the most common ones I see has to do with a linear framework of grief that was introduced by in the late 1960s. Known as the Five Stages of Grief, it suggests that the order of experiences is 1) Denial 2) Anger 3) Bargaining 4) Depression
5) Acceptance. More recently, another one was added—6) Meaning.

It’s very helpful to have words for an experience, and giving people a language for their process can be incredibly validating. However, I have found limitations to this particular framework. The idea that grief can fall into neat, differentiated stages goes against the reality that for many, grief is downright messy. It can lead people to feel defective or ashamed that they aren’t “further along” in their grief process with the passage of time. And it can also lead outsiders to make assumptions or judgments about how others are doing in their grieving experience– and influence gestures of support.

A few years ago, a friend of mine lost her father. I didn’t have Facebook at the time and I missed the announcement, funeral and the chance to go pay respects. When I heard, it was a month later and I felt terrible. I called her and was able to speak to her for a while, and I kept apologizing. She said to me, “You know Rachel, I actually really appreciate that you’re calling now, because it’s been quiet. The first week or two everyone was checking in, but it’s been quiet since them and I’m still very much reeling.”

The experience impressed upon me the importance of continuing to check in with people, even after and especially after the news is fresh. Reaching out to someone grieving isn’t about cheering up but about showing up. Showing up means, I’m here. Maybe it’s an act of service. Or a listening ear. Or “I’m thinking of you.”

Whatever your relationship to grief is, however it has played out in your life up until now, whatever you’re experiencing in this pandemic—it all makes sense. Everyone is grieving something. And yes, “it could be worse” and still be painful. Tending to that grief and being with it gives us the space not just to express what we need to, but to slowly integrate the experiences into who we are as we try to plow forward.